Spy Radar Satellites Declassified

The National Reconnaiassance Office, maker and operator of America's spy satellites, has declassified the existence of its super secret radar satellites, specifically those using Synthetic Aperture Radar, to ease information sharing with the military.

Classification is a double-edged sword. It may prevent your enemy from learning what you plan to do and what you are capable of doing. But it can have the same effect on your own forces, slowing their ability to design and build weapons and share needed data on the battlefield.

Worried that the long-term costs of classification outweighed the benefits, the National Reconnaissance Office, maker and operator of America’s spy satellites, declassified the existence of its super secret radar satellites, specifically those using Synthetic Aperture Radar. I heard about the declassification from a former intelligence official and called the NRO’s public affairs man, Rick Oborn, to confirm it. Oborn, regarded by many reporters as Dr. No Comment, belied his reputation and spoke on the record.

“We have declassified the fact that we have SAR systems,” Oborn said. The decision became public — sort of — on June 9 though it had actually been made several weeks before. The NRO did not publicize the decision and, as far as Oborn knew, there were no public notices.  I asked him why the decision was taken.

“The reason was a practical one. Number one, it was one of those not so secret secrets. Anyone who has paid attention to what we do at all knows we have radar satellites. Let’s just quit trying to protect this information and wasting whatever resources get spent doing that,” he said. But there was a more practical, urgent need. The Air Force and NRO could not exchange information needed to move ahead on the troubled efforts to design and build a new generation of radar satellites, known as Space Radar.

For those who don’t follow the spy satellite world too closely, Space Radar was supposed to have been a joint effort between the Pentagon and the NRO to build a satellite that could both monitor moving targets such as trucks or tanks for the military and provide the strategic intelligence needed by the intelligence community and White House. Those requirements were extremely difficult to reconcile and the program ended up being cancelled earlier this year. A plan for a new Space Radar was ordered by Congress. It has not been completed. Now back to the practical reasons for declassifying SAR.

“There are lots of discussions between ourselves and the Air Force in particular, and other combat commands and other entities [about Space Radar],” Oborn said, adding that “It just got too hard to get into a room and talk about all this stuff.” NRO officials often possessed Sensitive Compartmented Information clearances, while their Air Force colleagues did not. That meant the NRO people could not even say what system they were in the room to discuss, Oborn explained: “It became one of those decisions — we have lots of business to do here, and let’s just get rid of this impediment so people can get down to business.”